Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Booknotes: The Afterlives of Specimens

New Arrival:
The Afterlives of Specimens: Science, Mourning, and Whitman's Civil War
by Lindsay Tuggle (Univ of Iowa Pr, 2017).

This is the kind of completely unexpected arrival that always makes doing the work on this website fresh and interesting. I hadn't come across Lindsay Tuggle's The Afterlives of Specimens before in my scanning of publisher Fall/Winter catalogs or other sources.

Part of the University of Iowa Press's Iowa Whitman series, the book "explores the space between science and sentiment, the historical moment when the human cadaver became both lost love object and subject of anatomical violence. Walt Whitman witnessed rapid changes in relations between the living and the dead. In the space of a few decades, dissection evolved from a posthumous punishment inflicted on criminals to an element of preservationist technology worthy of Abraham Lincoln's martyred corpse. Whitman transitioned from a fervent opponent of medical bodysnatching to a literary celebrity who left behind instructions for his own autopsy, including the removal of his brain for scientific study."

Adequately describing this book for a Booknotes entry seems difficult, the title and subtitle suggesting a rather complicated interdisciplinary approach. If you're really interested, I would recommend reading the "Structure" subsection of the book's introduction (which is available at the link above using the Look Inside! function). It summarizes well the themes and content of the volume's five chapters.

Tuggle's manuscript also seems tangentially related to another book I reviewed just last month, Richard Reid's Recollections of a Civil War Medical Cadet. Like this one, Reid's book drew connections between body specimen collection, army surgeon Dr. John H. Brinton and the origins of the Army Medical Museum, and Walt Whitman itself. More from the Afterlives description: "Grounded in archival discoveries, Afterlives traces the origins of nineteenth-century America’s preservation compulsion, illuminating the influences of botanical, medical, spiritualist, and sentimental discourses on Whitman’s work. Tuggle unveils previously unrecognized connections between Whitman and the leading “medical men” of his era, such as the surgeon John H. Brinton, founding curator of the Army Medical Museum, and Silas Weir Mitchell, the neurologist who discovered phantom limb syndrome. Remains from several amputee soldiers whom Whitman nursed in the Washington hospitals became specimens in the Army Medical Museum."

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